Zen Has No Morals? Your MOM Has No Morals!

calvin_ethicsFirst up: Today at 10 AM at Hill Street Center, 237 Hill St., Santa Monica, CA 90405, we will have our month ZEN & YOGA get-together. Come do some Yoga and some Zen!

Next up: Tomorrow, Sunday March 31, 2013, I will lead a ZEN MORNING SERVICE at 10 AM at Against The Stream, 4300 Melrose Ave Los Angeles, CA 90029. This will be a full-on Zen Morning Service with bows and chanting and bells and stuff. Come watch the fun! How bad will I mess it all up? You will never know unless you go!

* * *

A while ago someone sent me an article entitled Zen Has No Morals. It appears on a website called The Zensite and was written by a guy named Christopher Hamacher. I once stayed a Christopher’s apartment in Munich, Germany. I never met him, but he was very kind to allow me to live in his place. I can’t recall if Christopher himself sent me the article or not. Sorry if it was you that sent it Christopher for taking so long!

The article attempts to prove that Zen is intrinsically an immoral or at least amoral philosophy by citing the actions of Eido Shimano Roshi and other Zen teachers who have allegedly acted immorally — the Joshu Sasaki case hadn’t broken by the time the article was written or I’m sure he’d have been included — and by looking at the Zen literature and practices to find places where an immoral or at least amoral approach to life appears to be supported and encouraged.

When I told my friend Tonen O’Connor,resident priest emerita of the Milwaukee Zen Center about the article, she said, “I don’t need to read that!”* I understand her position. If you look at the actions of their purported representatives and texts it’s simple to prove that any religion or philosophy has “no morals.” It’s no stretch at all to use this method to prove that Christianity has no morals. Remember the Crusades and the Inquisition? Hinduism has its share of incidents that could also prove it is immoral. There’s almost a cottage industry these days devoted to proving that Islam has no morals. Heck, if you gave me access to transcripts of everything she ever said or did in her life I could write a compelling article proving that your mom has no morals too!

That being said, Christopher makes some very good points in his article, and I encourage you to read it. I’m not just saying that because I hope he lets me use his apartment again when I travel to Germany later this year! The kinds of abuses he lists can and do happen. But they are all based on deep misunderstandings of the aspects of Zen philosophy that he sites.

For example, he writes about how the dichotomy between the absolute and relative views can be used abusively. He says, “since from this ‘absolute’ perspective there is no individuated self to feel suffering, one can easily deduce the conclusion that, ultimately, no abuse can ever occur.”

This is a common misunderstanding. But it’s just mental gymnastics. The rock bottom for anything in Zen is reality. If you can see it, feel it, hear it, taste it and so forth, then it’s real. Twisting words around to say that what people actually experience is somehow not what they really experienced in the “realm of the absolute” doesn’t change anything.

There is ultimately no individuated self who feels suffering. That’s true. But that doesn’t mean suffering doesn’t exist. The philosophy of “no self” doesn’t mean that what we mistakenly call “self” does not exist. It means that the definition of “self” is inadequate to describe the reality of the situation. What suffers is not the individuated self. But suffering is real.

One especially compelling point Christopher makes regards the institution of dharma transmission. He says, “All this evidence therefore supports Lachs’ suggestion that a certain ‘old-boys’ club’ mentality persists among Zen teachers who wield the institutional power of dharma transmission, which serves to protect the reputation of ‘long-time friends’ at the expense of preventing further harm to students. Indeed, if even one dharma-transmitted teacher does not live up to the promise of nigh-divinity, then the entire institution presumably becomes open to questioning.”

There do indeed seem to be folks out there in positions of authority who appear to believe that they must protect the aura of “nigh-divinity” of dharma-transmitted masters at all costs. But this idea is not at all universal among dharma-trnasmitted teachers. Neither of my teachers claimed anything even close to “nigh-divinity” for themselves or for anyone else, including Buddha himself. Nor did they protect anyone who did. Rather they were openly critical of anyone who made such nonsensical claims. Most other Zen teachers I’ve met feel pretty much the same way as my teachers.

But I’m aware that a certain degree of this kind of foolishness does exist. I’ve been doing my level best to demolish it. But I’ve met with tremendous resistance. I think this is why a lot of people were so upset by my book Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate. In tearing down my own “nigh-divinity” as a so-called “Zen Master” I made it hard for anyone else to believe in such claims made by others. Astoundingly it’s not the teachers who have complained so bitterly about this but their students who desperately want to cling to the notion of their teachers’ “nigh divinity.”

What’s happened in the Sasaki case may explain my own teacher, Gudo Nishijima Roshi’s rather peculiar way of dealing with dharma transmission. Nishijima was the opposite of Sasaki in that he named a whole lot of dharma heirs. Sasaki has so far named none. I tallied Nishijima’s up a while back and there were well over twenty. Some of them were people he had very long and deep associations with, like me or like Mike Leutchford, Peter Rocca, Mike Cross and Jeremy Pearson. But in other cases he seems to have given transmission almost on a whim to people he barely knew but who impressed him somehow.

I once asked him why and he said that people who gave very few or even just one dharma transmission were “trying to control things.” At the time, this answer just puzzled me. But reflecting upon what happened with Sasaki, I think I see what he may have meant. If everybody is waiting to see who gets the be the one single dharma transmitted heir of the great master, they’re less likely to rock the boat by questioning or casting doubt upon the master. I’m not saying this is what happened in the Sasaki case or the others. I really don’t know. But I am saying that perhaps Nishijima saw this kind of thing as a possibility in his case and did what he did in order to circumvent it.

This leads some to speculate that it’s the one-to-one nature of dharma transmission which is the root problem. Dharma transmission is not like pope nomination. There is no committee of cardinals to oversee the process and collectively ratify the next dharma heir. It’s strictly down to one person’s subjective opinion. Some would like to rectify this in American Zen by making dharma transmission a matter to be determined by committee, but that’s because they don’t understand dharma transmission very well. It’s much more like falling in love than it is like electing the next pope. There are just some things that cannot be determined by committees.

San Francisco Zen Center’s solution to this is to allow dharma transmission to continue to be a one-to-one thing, but to separate the traditional connection between dharma transmission and abbacy. So a dharma transmitted person does not necessarily become the next abbot of their center. The abbacy is determined in other ways, which I’ve never really understood. Nor is abbot a permanent position in their tradition. The abbots serve for a certain time and then a new abbot is appointed.

This works if you’re the San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC) and have a number dharma transmitted potential abbots to choose from. But most Zen places in the USA are not so well staffed with potential abbots and so this solution would not work for them.

The other more serious problem with the SFZC solution is that it makes the abbots beholden to what Marx called the “tyranny of the majority”. Wikipedia defines this as cases in which, “decisions made by a majority place its interests so far above those of an individual or minority group as to constitute active oppression, comparable to that of tyrants and despots. In many cases a disliked ethnic, religious or racial group is deliberately penalized by the majority element acting through the democratic process.”

When a dharma teacher is forced to act and speak according to the wishes of the majority of her students, she becomes unable to speak the truth as she sees it and the teaching suffers. Teachers of Zen need to be able to express themselves with absolute freedom. This is why Zen teachers are more like artists than religious authority figures. If you don’t like a particular artist’s work, all you have to do is stop supporting it. The same with Zen teachers.

I am well aware this doesn’t solve every problem. I’m really just trying to lay out the problems as I see them rather than suggest any solutions. I think the solutions may present themselves over time. But the one most currently in vogue these days — making Zen more rigidly institutionalized and democratic — is not going to work.

Just a little food for thought.

* Tonen told me she doesn’t recall saying this. And I could be remembering wrong. But says that if she did say it she was, “recognizing that it sounded like it was rehashing the age-old problem with misinterpretation of the Buddha’s teachings on the absolute and the relative, on ‘neither good nor bad’ and no-self. The literature has warned for thousands of years about misinterpreting these teachings such that one can be amoral and just do what ever one wants.”

* * *

And speaking of food, that’s what Brad will be able to eat if you send a donation to support this blog. Seriously folks, donations to this blog have been my main source of income over the past two years. Far more than anything I get from book royalties or speaking fees (which often cost me more to travel to than I earn from them). Thanks!

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111 Responses

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  1. Mumbles
    Mumbles March 30, 2013 at 9:38 am | |


  2. chasrmartin
    chasrmartin March 30, 2013 at 9:39 am | |

    Wow, this is good. Seriously.

  3. HarryB
    HarryB March 30, 2013 at 9:42 am | |

    Few thoughts:

    It is a mistake to conflate unelected leadership and Dharma transmission. There is no good reason why the functions/offices of these should be combined in one person (likely making for a very authoritarian/ non-participatory style of organization without the checks and balances to allow for human foibles). Taking inspiration from the ‘separation of powers’ doctrine might be a model for inspiration here:


    An org can be run in a democratic way, with transparency, checks, balances and standards, without the Dharma transmission thing being tied up with the leadership. Leadership can be arrived at democratically based on people’s individual strengths and capacities for getting the required stuff done (all the glamourous real stuff; like cleaning toilets and buying teabags etc etc). The assumption that a person who can bestow Dharma tansmission is automatically the best to direct/lead/ coordinate a group seems quite silly, and may be a main part of the magic/superstitious thinking around Dharma transmission that needs to be challenged.



  4. buzzard3000
    buzzard3000 March 30, 2013 at 10:09 am | |

    Hope you practice for that Sunday service Brad. Have someone video it so we can see if it really happened…

  5. buzzard3000
    buzzard3000 March 30, 2013 at 10:10 am | |

    Practice Brad Practice!!!

  6. GoatRider
    GoatRider March 30, 2013 at 10:17 am | |

    Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for dinner.

  7. kigen01
    kigen01 March 30, 2013 at 10:42 am | |

    Hi Brad, thanks for sharing your thoughts. Unfortunately, I can’t agree with the things you’ve suggested about Joshu Roshi. As one of his
    oshos, I have to say that I would have to agree with him in not appointing anyone as his successor yet (although he may have done so privately). I suppose it’s far easier to believe that all the people who freely chose to come and go to his centers and to train with him for decades are just weak-willed folks, one-step away from drinking bad-cool-aid at the master’s whim, rather than believing that the man actually had something quite unique to teach. It’s also very hard to believe that none if his thousands of students succeeded in making that unique teaching completely their own. But to form an really educated opinion on this you would have had to actually study with him, so it’s certainly understandable that you assume otherwise. Cynicism in such matters is to be expected…and perhaps deserved, in light of Roshi’s catastrophic and harmful disregard for 21st century Western views of bodily sovereignty and sexual mores. However, I don’t think that there are many people who have actually studied with Roshi in earnest (lay or ordained) that would disagree with my point. Cheers!

    1. kigen01
      kigen01 March 30, 2013 at 2:35 pm | |

      “Im not saying this is what happened in the Sasaki case or the others. I really dont know. But I am saying that perhaps Nishijima saw this kind of thing as a possibility in his case and did what he did in order to circumvent it.”

      I should have said that I dont agree with the things youve suggested *might be true* about Joshu Roshi. You clearly qualify your opinion there.

  8. boubi
    boubi March 30, 2013 at 11:54 am | |

    First of all i’m not a christian apologist, i don’t give a damn thing about religions or deities.

    This said if you look at the christian main tenets and Jesus life you’ll find that the main point is “love your fellow human being” and that he allegedly gave his life in order to cleanse humanity sins.

    Then if people who call themselves christian do a lot of evil things, as much as citizens of a country violate their own laws, this should not invalidate the state nor the laws.

    Judaism’s in Hilel, already cited in this blog by others, was “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.” This approach was the zeitgeist of judaism even before Jesus, a Jew, was born.

    And if you look at the matter christianism is just a judaism with Jesus added, the main tenets are the same, 10 laws etc.

    I don’t know about hinduism, but my impression that it’s all ruled but karma and bad and good are karma things, some cosmic mechanism … which seems a bit alien to our concept of good and evil.

    IMO, and i recognize to be even more ignorant about it, buddhism seems to me as a “vacuity experience” planted on top of hinduism “world concept”.
    All seems ruled by attachment, “attachment is bad”, “no attachment no evil”. More learned bloggers will for sure correct these borderline definitions.

    Come to islam things are a bit rougher, because after being chased from Mecca (hejira) things got difficult to be spoken of openly, lest some bearded fanatic decide to cut off your head for simply stating things plainly described in they holly book. So if it’s written there, you cannot criticize it, if repeated you are a blasphemous infidel risking in both cases your very own life.
    In France a magazine making fun of pope, rabbis and showing the french president “Sarkozy the first” fucken drunk, smoking a joint and with a coke rail in front of him saying “it’s all fucked up/we’re in deep shit”, got torched because he made some prophet’s caricatures …

    Here you can have a look at the magazine presidential treatement …

    So have a look at that book and decide for yourself … and this is in their holy texts relating the very life of their prophet
    Bukhari (59:369)
    Qur’an (5:51)
    Qur’an 4:94

    So Brad make up your own mind, it is not the people, it is the ideology/beliefs that are to be analysed carefully.

    You don’t eat this, you don’t eat that, you smear yourself in shit, eat dogs turds, it’s their own business, who gives a danm thing.
    Aghoris are bad? They eat already dead people left around, so what’s the difference if it’s a bug, a dog, some bird or a person that do the job?

    Everybody kills, steal, rape and so on, being religious or atheists. Even apes do the same things with a level of self-awareness that is astonishing.

    Just have a look if the wrong deeds are legitimate by religion.

    That’s the whole point.

    That makes the difference between democracy’s rotten apples (remember Rodney King?) and dictature’s willing torturers, the actions could be the same but the legal legitimacy or ideological justifications aren’t.

  9. boubi
    boubi March 30, 2013 at 12:01 pm | |

    Ok there was no coke, but drunk and stoned he was in the picture


  10. boubi
    boubi March 30, 2013 at 12:01 pm | |
  11. Zafu
    Zafu March 30, 2013 at 12:31 pm | |

    I am well aware this doesnt solve every problem. Im really just trying to lay out the problems as I see them rather than suggest any solutions. I think the solutions may present themselves over time. But the one most currently in vogue these days making Zen more rigidly institutionalized and democratic is not going to work. ~ Bradikins

    Is that actually in vogue? I that’s just what some people are talking about. Nothing to worry about, cuz religions are not democratic, by nature.

    The only viable solution is to lose the whole “Zen master” myth. Then they won’t have the influential power to abuse. Simple. :)

  12. Proulx Michel
    Proulx Michel March 30, 2013 at 12:47 pm | |

    I think Harry has a point, which corresponds to my own idea. The leader/director/president or whatever of an association dedicated to the practice should be someone utterly separated from the teacher, even if the latter is in residence. That accounts for separation of powers, helps keep the teacher in check in case he’d stray, and avoid that the leader/director/president eventually take the bit between his teeth.

    Buddhism has it in a way that’s quite unfamiliar to those who go by rules stated once and for all, because it says something which is quite anathema to the Catholic Church, that is circumstances play a role in determining if something is right or wrong.

    I once read a very interesting book in which the Xtian myth of Adam and Eve was deconstructed. It showed that the passage from Hebrew to Greek and Latin entailed something quite insidious: the Hebrew text does not talk about a tree of the Knowledge of Good and Bad, but of the knowledge of what’s proper and what’s improper. This may seem like what Boubi denounces, that is arguing on comas, but it’s rather important, I think.

  13. boubi
    boubi March 30, 2013 at 1:03 pm | |

    Maybe but from the little i know, in the hebrew (original) text they talk about a tree (etz)

    “In gan eden was etz hachayim, the tree of life, as well as etz hada’at tov vara, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam’s first responsibility before the LORD was to work (avodah) and guard the garden, and to refrain from eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”

    The tree was already found in mesopothamian lore, and genesis is SO similar to mesopothamian that i believe it comes from there. Beyond Abraham coming from Ur of the Chaldeans

    Now the interesting thing about the tree is
    “Genesis 3: 22 ADONAI, God, said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil. Now, to prevent his putting out his hand and taking also from the tree of life, eating, and living forever –” 23 therefore, ADONAI, God, sent him out of the garden of ‘Eden to cultivate the ground from which he was taken.”

    Sorry??? “HAS BECOME LIKE ON OF US” … WOW that’s really interesting, what’s that some sci-fi book?

  14. boubi
    boubi March 30, 2013 at 1:13 pm | |

    Tov and ra, mean in hebrew good and bad/evil, check it in the web, try here


    bad = ra
    good = tov

  15. buddy
    buddy March 30, 2013 at 1:20 pm | |

    Just a point of clarification: while Sasaki hasn’t announced his dharma successor, he has ordained over 20 people to offically teach in his lineage, making them at least some sort of dharma heir.

  16. boubi
    boubi March 30, 2013 at 1:26 pm | |

    +++This is a common misunderstanding. But its just mental gymnastics. The rock bottom for anything in Zen is reality. If you can see it, feel it, hear it, taste it and so forth, then its real. Twisting words around to say that what people actually experience is somehow not what they really expereinced in the realm of the absolute doesnt change anything.

    There is ultimately no individuated self who feels suffering. Thats true. But that doesnt mean suffering doesnt exist. The philosophy of no self doesnt mean that what we mistakenly call self does not exist. It means that the definition of self is inadequate to describe the reality of the situation. What suffers is not the individuated self. But suffering is real.+++

    Thanks for this Brad

    +++ The rock bottom for anything in Zen is reality. If you can see it, feel it, hear it, taste it and so forth, then its real. +++

    Let’s try to kick some asshole sack to see if they keep saying their bullshit.

  17. Fred
    Fred March 30, 2013 at 1:59 pm | |

    “The philosophy of no self doesnt mean that what we mistakenly call self does not exist. It means that the definition of self is inadequate to describe the reality of the situation.”

    There is no self; there is no thing or place to hang the hat or boil the egg. There is
    nothing to cling to, no concept of self or not self.

    There is no nutsack to kick and no operative to kick the nutsack. Everything is
    bullshit to the extent that the mind represents what is, but does not know for
    sure what is there. ( McLeod and Red Pine tape )

    Mr. Kigen’s sangha speaks of not knowing/no self being open to all that arises,
    and listening deeply to all that arises in regards to the consequences of the
    master ignoring cause and effect.

    What would be the consequence. Even if there was jail time, there would be
    3 meals and plenty of time to meditate.

  18. boubi
    boubi March 30, 2013 at 2:08 pm | |

    Right, somebody please try putting his own sack in a drawer and slam it close … and then relate the illusory aspects of the so called experience.

    Could be that some highly trained yogi could have a different point of view.

  19. boubi
    boubi March 30, 2013 at 2:27 pm | |

    “There(1) is no self(2); there(3) is no thing(4) or place(5) to hang(6) the hat(7) or boil(8) the egg(9). There(10) is nothing(11) to cling(12) to, no concept(13) of self(14) or not sel(15)f.”

    (1) A. Mergulli – Topography – p. 120 & 253
    (3) ibidem p. 82
    10) ibidem p. 89
    (2) T.Y. Priviet – Ydynachuy – introduction IV
    (14) ibidem p. 14
    (15) ibidem p. 1025
    (4) J. Herminius – De rerum nullius – p. 51 & 59
    (5) Z. Ngo – The 5th dimensional flat space – p. 4
    (6) Tche l’Ho Duro – De virilia – p.69
    (7) A. Lewis – Mad as One, New neurology – p. 98
    (8) T.H. Kelvin – Bubbling States of Matter – chapter III
    (9) Y. Kip – Ars Aviaria – incipit
    (11) A. B. Bernoulli – Le vide quotidien – introduction
    (12) Q. Arkonen – Ars gluentium – back cover & R.S (collective work) Sticky Fingers
    (13) A. F. Socrates – Just a representation Bro – et alia

    1. anon 108
      anon 108 March 30, 2013 at 3:08 pm | |


  20. Fred
    Fred March 30, 2013 at 2:40 pm | |

    if you examine many things with a confused mind, you might suppose that your mind and nature are permanent. But when you practice intimately and return to where you are, it will be clear that there is nothing that has unchanging self

    1. anon 108
      anon 108 March 30, 2013 at 3:04 pm | |

      Here’s a more nuanced view, Fred –


  21. boubi
    boubi March 30, 2013 at 3:04 pm | |

    Did i ever talk about “permanent” anything or “unchanging self”?

    Did i suppose anything about the mind?

    What the heck are you talking about bro?

    I don’t know where i am nor what i am, so going back “there”* seems a tat dicey so to speak, just imagine if Scotty beams me up to the wrong place, then what?

    * A. Mergulli Topography p. 120 & 253

  22. Fred
    Fred March 30, 2013 at 3:26 pm | |

    “I dont know where i am nor what i am, so going back there* seems a tat dicey so to speak, just imagine if Scotty beams me up to the wrong place, then what?”

    The same star stuff would exist.

  23. boubi
    boubi March 30, 2013 at 3:37 pm | |

    So are we in some lucid dream?

    Would be good, no bills to pay

  24. AnneMH
    AnneMH March 30, 2013 at 4:39 pm | |

    very nice Brad. I have to say that the Zen Wrapped book is my favorite of what I have read. It is especially difficult to find that line where you talk about what your practice does for you and others in a daily way and don’t come across as high and mighty. At least for me that was more real, and prompts me sometimes to talk directly about what I am doing and what effect it has. There is this tendancy I think when you have been practicing awhile and someone sees you in a tough spot to just say “oh but that is just Anne, she is good at handling that” (okay more often it is that I am not good at handling something), yet I really want people to know that anything they see some of us handle well is directly because of a practice and tradition that is accessible to them and everyone. At least that is what I got out of the book.

    I don’t know much about the transmission. I confess I almost go out of my way to not be in a real center. I have gone on some retreats but the social time before and after is just painful. I do not know these teachers or have not read the books they talk about, I just practice and read a couple people not too often. But it could be me, many times I don’t understand half of what people are discussing here,

  25. anon 108
    anon 108 March 30, 2013 at 5:27 pm | |

    …many times I dont understand half of what people are discussing here,

    It’s just guy talk, Anne. Cars, football, ’emptiness’… .

    1. AnneMH
      AnneMH March 30, 2013 at 5:58 pm | |

      I kinda figured it was almost all guys here, I see a lot of generic names and a few other females. I can follow cars and football, I tend to get lost in a few of the wanderings and then find it is easier to sit on a cushion than to get too involved in mental meanderings. Hmmm, I may have solved something for myself. I can’t say if anyone is right or wrong but I get encouraged to practice a lot more!

  26. SoF
    SoF March 30, 2013 at 5:44 pm | |

    “old-boys club mentality persists among Zen teachers who wield the institutional power of dharma transmission”

    I allude to that at the end of my post with the clipped text from “shoes outside the door.”

    I think that the power that corrupts is “the power of dharma transmission.”

    Just one opinion among a spectrum of opinions.

  27. minkfoot
    minkfoot March 30, 2013 at 6:08 pm | |

    “So are we in some lucid dream?
    Would be good, no bills to pay”

    You never have nightmares about bills?

    This morning I had a weird dream that mixed social and Dharma stuff. I was in some place like Berkeley or Boulder at a time when everybody was real cool, man. I was walking along the street wearing headphones, but they were the kind everyone else could hear, too. Some song by Arthur Lee came on, either “Alone Again Or” or, more likely, “The Red Telephone.” I felt real cool, too. Then I realized I was wearing a Kesa, only it was really just a pair of towels I was trying to keep from falling off my naked body.

    There was a lot more, but that’s all I remember. I kind of knew I was dreaming and I was amused, though I wouldn’t call it especially lucid.

  28. drocloc
    drocloc March 30, 2013 at 6:19 pm | |

    Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

    Don’t just DO something. SIT there!

  29. A-Bob
    A-Bob March 30, 2013 at 7:27 pm | |

    Brad.. Don’t talk about my Mom. She told me some things about your Dad. He is a filthy pig. Just don’t talk about my Mom..

  30. SoF
    SoF March 30, 2013 at 9:24 pm | |

    Don’t confuse Yo Yo Ma


    Yo Ma Ma

    except in your nightmares.

  31. Proulx Michel
    Proulx Michel March 31, 2013 at 1:38 am | |

    Football? That strange game with the wrong number of players and the wrong shape for a ball: round!?

  32. boubi
    boubi March 31, 2013 at 7:53 am | |

    ++Theres almost a cottage industry these days devoted to proving that Islam has no morals. Heck, if you gave me access to transcripts of everything she ever said or did in her life I could write a compelling article proving that your mom has no morals too!++

    Having a second look you cannot deny that in your title you were talking about Zen and moral to switch to islam which isn’t central to this blog nor it is anybody’s religion among your readers. ????

    Fact is everybody is human.

    Someone’s (normal) mom/dad has (good) values and everybody, included (good) moms/dads, loose control and swear and so on.

    Anybody would value his parents by the majority of their actions, the values they tried to transmit and not by the (few) times they were carried away.

    Unless somebody had criminal/racist parents, subscribed to these behaviours and agreed to reproduce them.

    What happens in the world nowaday is that the WRITTEN and TRANSMITTED and ACCEPTED behaviour and actions seem (read again seem) to be the source of deviant behaviour, there is coherence among those declarations and actions, it’s not some isolated moment of rage as when Jesus kicked out the merchants from the temple, while he passed his time (according to lore) healing people, preaching love and forgiveness and so on.

    There is a vast industry financed by petrol trying on one side to make you believe any conspirational theory and forget whatever happens and on the other side to push legislations intended to muzzle any criticism.

    1. boubi
      boubi March 31, 2013 at 8:02 am | |

      Not forgetting the “good cop bad cop” tactics where bearded fanatics arson diplomatic buildings, behead critics, making as if the others are the “good and reasonable ones” just trying to calm down everybody and proposing sensible measures intended to “reduce the level of provocation” (i.e. free speech)

  33. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote March 31, 2013 at 8:20 am | |

    “I confess I almost go out of my way to not be in a real center. I have gone on some retreats but the social time before and after is just painful. I do not know these teachers or have not read the books they talk about, I just practice and read a couple people not too often. But it could be me…”

    There’s a little zendo behind a house close by where I live, with a teacher in the Sanbo-Kyodan lineage, and I wonder that I’m not there on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings.

    Sometimes I think I would like the kind of practice that Uchiyama described, with no chanting, no lecture, and no ceremonies. I draw courage from the fact that Uchiyama needed three shots of whiskey (and a cigarette?) to get the feeling back into his legs, after a day with 14 50-minute periods of zazen. I know he was strongly committed to demonstrating to the world that zazen without the trappings was the heart of zen practice.

    I think of zazen as a kind of body-work, from my most intimate nature. I know that I need the work, and where I once hoped for dramatic changes in my posture and carriage I now am satisfied just to take things as they come. The bigger issue for me is the focus on the senses of proprioception and equilibrioception informed by the ostoliths and the sharpening of the senses, picking up the feeling of place informed by the muscles and tendons as distinct from the reset of the eyes in action.

    ’22. Jesus saw some babies nursing. He said to his disciples, “These nursing babies are like those who enter the (Father’s) kingdom.”

    They said to him, “Then shall we enter the (Father’s) kingdom as babies?”

    Jesus said to them, “When you make the two into one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner, and the upper like the lower, and when you make male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male nor the female be female, when you make eyes in place of an eye, a hand in place of a hand, a foot in place of a foot, an image in place of an image, then you will enter [the kingdom].””

    Gospel of Thomas

  34. Justin Lewis
    Justin Lewis March 31, 2013 at 11:47 am | |

    “The rock bottom for anything in Zen is reality. If you can see it, feel it, hear it, taste it and so forth, then its real. Twisting words around to say that what people actually experience is somehow not what they really experienced in the realm of the absolute doesnt change anything.”

    This reminds me of something I’ve been stewing over for years…

    Someone once asked Nishijima on his blog about whether writing caligraphy while listening to music, something Nishijima enjoys doing, was doing two separate things. I know that you can look at writing caligraphy and listening to music as two separate things, but can’t they also just be looked at as one thing?

    I got the impression that the questioner was implying that doing these two separate things was somehow unfocused or unbalanced. But if that were the case then how could anything we ever do be focused or balanced? That view seems inaccurate. I have to breathe and look at things when I operate my car. Breathing, observing the roadway, working the petals and levers and steering my car does not make me an unfocused or less balanced driver. All of that can just be called “driving.”

    However, I can see how listening to music while driving could cause distraction. Listening to music is not essential to driving, and driving is potentially a very hazardous activity which requires a great degree of attention and care. So minimizing potential distractions like music is probably a good idea.

    I’m just not sure that the same argument holds true against writing caligraphy and listening to music. I used to draw while listening to music and that always seemed like one wholesome activity to me when I did it. It seemed that the music actually inspired and enhanced the drawing.

    1. sri_barence
      sri_barence April 2, 2013 at 4:09 pm | |

      Someone once asked Seung Sahn (the Korean 78th Patriarch for anyone who cares) if it was OK to be reading and eating at the same time. SS said, “When reading and eating, just read and eat!”

      A modern Chinese Zen master is known for saying, “Mind your own business.”

      Genjo Marinello (a dharma heir of Eido Shimano) said in one of his lectures, “I’m not looking for anything. I’m just looking.”

      So what? I’m just saying, “What are you doing right now?” Isn’t that the most important thing?

  35. AnneMH
    AnneMH March 31, 2013 at 12:42 pm | |

    (quote) I draw courage from the fact that Uchiyama needed three shots of whiskey (and a cigarette?) to get the feeling back into his legs, after a day with 14 50-minute periods of zazen. I know he was strongly committed to demonstrating to the world that zazen without the trappings was the heart of zen practice. (quote)

    Ahh that is the question I was afraid to ask at my last retreat. My legs do tend to fall asleep and then when they don’t fall asleep they just hurt after a shorter and shorter amount of time. So since there are a lot of people who really read about this stuff here, my question is has any zen practitioner ever say lost a toe due to repeated loss of circulation during zazen? Has anyone had some sort of damage? And is there hope of it getting physically easier at all over time? I have been doing this the 20+ years so even 2 times daily is not an issue, however I wonder if it gets easier with repeated meditations daily over a retreat time. I am experimenting with changing up position, ya know left over right half the time and right over left half the time. But thinking about moving to a chair makes me feel like an old lady.

    1. sri_barence
      sri_barence April 2, 2013 at 4:17 pm | |

      I find that shifting my position on the cushion can make a difference in whether my leg falls asleep (it is always the left leg). It feels like there is a point about six inches out from my hip socket, that when pressed upon, causes my leg to fall asleep. If I arrange my butt so that the spot is on the cushion, but not on the edge of it, then there is less pressure there, and my leg does not fall asleep (or not as much).

      I still get pain in my knees when I do retreats, although I am finding I can sit for longer without serious pain these days. I managed to sit still for almost two days worth of sitting periods last retreat. The pain only became difficult during the last day. And actually I wondered if I might have made it all the way through, if I had pushed myself harder. I tend not to do that, because I have bad knees, and I worry that I might do (more) permanent damage. I have no trouble sitting for 30-40 minutes at home, though.

  36. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote March 31, 2013 at 1:47 pm | |

    The last retreat I did was three days last summer, at Jikoji. I did sit the lotus , but a couple of times I had to uncork it in the last five minutes of the last period of the day. And my knees were starting to tell me about it, by the third day.

    Reading about Kobun, I think he started sitting at about 8, and never had pain or numbness in his legs. He could get into the lotus without using his hands.

    I know Demian Kwong survived six months at Eiheiji and was voted best attitude; I don’t know but I imagine he sits lotus, and he also started at about 8, according to his mom.

    The reason Zen centers sit seven day retreats is that Gautama the Buddha proclaimed that anyone who made mindfulness their practice for seven days and nights would attain either not returning or the full Monty. Personally, I would say that this isn’t necessarily the case, although I couldn’t really judge once returning. I think it’s right up there with Gautama’s teaching of meditation on the unlovely, which resulted in the suicide of scores of monks, as one of his over-estimations.

    Judging by Gautama’s statement that the “intent concentration on in-breaths and out-breaths” was his practice before and after enlightenment (elsewhere translated “the development of mindfulness that is mindfulness of in-breaths and out-breaths), and his statement that the meditative states (trance states) belong to mindfulness of the body, I would say that it’s about falling asleep and waking up on the cushion, and as such the most natural practice would be in the morning on waking up and at night before going to bed.

    The rest is hogwash.

  37. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote March 31, 2013 at 1:55 pm | |

    oh, and yeah, the reason Kobun was recruited by Shunryu Suzuki was that Kobun had helped the Americans Suzuki sent to Eiheiji. Per Kobun:

    “I ended up taking them to a doctor to check on their knees, and to a good dentist to fix their teeth.”

    There are people out there who have reported to lasting damage to their knees, trying to sit lotus in strict retreats (hard-style zen?).

  38. minkfoot
    minkfoot March 31, 2013 at 4:02 pm | |

    The body adjusts and the pain lessens, but only to a point for many or most people. Retreats always seem to end up bringing up pain in legs and back. One’s attitude towards it is important whether you suffer a lot, a little, or not at all.

    In several decades of reading and practice, I have never heard of a case of amputation or other problem due to circulation. Damaged knees are something else it’s important to learn when pain from long sitting is “normal” and just something to deal with by ignoring, as opposed to something being really wrong.

    One teacher who made his students sit very long I think it was over an hour and a half came under severe criticism from other teachers for subjecting his students to the possibility of nerve damage. But one can condition themselves to sit longer than that without problems. John Crook told of a monastery he visited in China where the monks sat before dawn for two hours, then and hour and a half, then forty-five minutes. To their surprise, the intrepid Englishman and Chan teacher, Dr. Crook, joined them.

    One is supposed to be able to sit longer in the Dhyana states. Two hours comfortably in the first Dhyana; two weeks in the fourth.

    In _Three Pillars of Zen_, the teaching is that forty-minute sittings are optimal, because a fatigue of mental energy sets in after that. However, I’ve found that there’s a kind of second wind you can pick up if you sit longer.

    James Ford-roshi thinks twenty-five minutes is a minimum for a “daily maintenance” sitting. However, if that is what you are used to, it can be hell to go on retreat with a group that sits longer.

    Late in life I realized that I have AD/HD. After asking many teachers about how I could adjust my practice to cope with my “monkey mind on steroids, crack, and crank,” I found out on my own that I just need to sit longer by forty minutes, I’m just getting settled down.

    So, unless you already have some condition that sitting will aggravate, moderate pain or numbness in sittings of up to an hour shouldn’t be a concern. The anxiety over it is a needless addition. But if the pain increases (aside from retreats) assess it carefully. On retreats, tell the teacher or monitor and trust them to have the experience to judge, and just let it go.

    I’ve found the stretches outlined in the article “How to Grow a Lotus,” at the Website Michel is associated with, very helpful in lessening pain through getting the legs more limber. But be patient I’ve only noticed a difference over two or three years, doing them somewhat haphazardly. The link is

    I’ve also found it helpful, when sitting on a zafu listening to Dharma talks, to sit with knees apart and the soles of the feet flat against each other. Just gently press down on your knees now and again, throughout the talk.


  39. minkfoot
    minkfoot March 31, 2013 at 4:09 pm | |

    Hah! Angle brackets make text disappear! The link I tried to give is

  40. anon 108
    anon 108 March 31, 2013 at 4:59 pm | |


    I’ve been told, and it checks out, that it’s not cut-off circulation that causes numbness but blocking of neural fluid – usually in the long sciatic nerve that goes from the lower back, through the buttocks and down your leg. I’ve also been told that if the feeling doesn’t come back after a minute or so of releasing the pressure, you may have a chronic problem. But that’s rare…I’ve been told.

    More common is knee damage. It really shouldn’t hurt when you sit. A bit of slight discomfort from time to time, fine. But if you feel real pain you’re most likely forcing your body beyond its capabilities. Experiment to find a position that’s more comfortable. And do the exercises on the site minkfoot linked (some are easier than others!). You have to do what’s right for you and pain is telling you something’s not right, right?

    When I started sitting I could barely get into quarter lotus. After seven years of taking it very slowly, doing exercise and never tolerating pain, I can now sit comfortably in full lotus. But I’ve always been pretty limber. Not everbody is. And my legs still go numb quite regularly. When they do I raise myself up a bit for a while or lean to one side, wait for some feeling to come back and carry on.

    As for Zen Centres and their policies. What are they gonna do if you move, get up, or choose not to sit one session? Tell you you’re a bad person? Guarantee you you’ll never get enlightened? Throw you out? If that’s the kind of reaction you get, my advice would be to run. It’s your practice, not theirs.

    1. anon 108
      anon 108 March 31, 2013 at 5:02 pm | |

      P.S. I’m 60. I started late 😉

    2. anon 108
      anon 108 April 1, 2013 at 11:25 am | |

      I wrote “After seven years of taking it very slowly…never tolerating pain…” That’s not well-put. I mean that I’ve never twisted or forced myself into positions that really hurt.

      I have sat with (what I call) discomfort which, as minkfoot says later on, can be very useful.

    3. sri_barence
      sri_barence April 2, 2013 at 4:46 pm | |

      The KwanUm School of Zen (founded by Seung Sahn) has very lax policies for sitting. One may sit in almost any position (I actually saw a woman laying on the floor at one Zen Center). If there is too much pain one may get up from the cushion and stand. Of course one is also free to sit still with great determination, and endure great pain. I have no idea whether this is a good policy or a bad one. I personally try to sit for every period without moving. This is pretty easy to do for daily practice, but retreats can be a bit of a challenge.

  41. King Kong
    King Kong March 31, 2013 at 5:08 pm | |



  42. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote March 31, 2013 at 5:29 pm | |

    “The knee is an unforgiving joint; once injure, it may never be the same again. Therefore, if you feel a sharp pain in the knee, adjust your position or seek the help of a competent teacher.” (from the article minkfoot linked to)

    The article says it’s not a lack of flexibility at the knees that makes the pain there, but a lack of flexibility at the hips.

    I would say that it’s flexibility at the sacrum, and the only way to stretch the fascia and ligaments between the pelvis and the sacrum safely is through a sharpening of the senses of equalibrium and proprioception, so that gravity stretches the tissues in the relaxed movement of breath. Recall that the ability to feel depends on the exits of nerves between particular vertebrae in the spine, and the ability to feel in the legs allows proprioception and equalibrioception to generate activity in the abdominals and the lower back to align the spine appropriately as the breath moves. From the sense of where I am, proprioception and equalibrioception engage stretch and activity in the movement of breath, and as Feldenkrais pointed out they do so in three directions.

    I still have numbness some days, and I’m just sitting 40 minutes at home, mostly in the morning. Still, I know I have to fall down to be upright:

    “In a poem from the fifth century C.E., the Buddhist monk Fuxi elaborated on how relaxed extension stretches the ligaments between the sacrum and the pelvis, and how gravity generates activity in the legs and in the pelvis that singularizes the experience of location and turns off volitive activity in the movement of breath:

    The empty hand grasps the hoe-handle
    Walking along I ride the ox
    The ox crosses the wooden bridge
    The bridge is flowing, the water is still

    The phrase the bridge is flowing could be said to describe a moment before sleep when the location of consciousness seems to shift in place in the body, while the water is still could describe the cessation of volitive activity in the body at that same moment. For most people, the loss of volitive control in the activity of the body is associated with falling, and as a consequence many people experience a hypnic jerk or sudden muscular contraction as they begin to fall asleep. Fuxi suggests that a consciousness that shifts location in the body can come about as a matter of course, as the ability to feel informs the sense of location and the weight of the body generates stretch and activity in the movement of breath. He depicts a process of gradual stages whereby a muscular contraction is avoided, at the moment when a shift in the location of awareness with a cessation of volitive activity registers in consciousness.

    Although Fuxi outlines the stages of a process, and the process may be said to be gradual, the transition from a waking state to a state between waking and sleeping must be said to be sudden, marked by a sense of location that can shift and a cessation of any voluntary activity in the body.”

    1. anon 108
      anon 108 March 31, 2013 at 5:47 pm | |

      The article says its not a lack of flexibility at the knees that makes the pain there, but a lack of flexibility at the hips.

      Hips, yes. My teacher is pretty sure that a significant contributor to his hip problems was the years he spent sitting in full lotus not realising he was putting strain on…parts that shouldn’t be strained. He’s recently had the hip replaced and now sits Burmese. I recall him saying.

  43. anon 108
    anon 108 March 31, 2013 at 5:35 pm | |

    BTW Brad,

    I don’t mean to be rude when I don’t comment on your posts. I always read and consider what you write. It’s just that I’ve nothing to say about the alleged misbehaviour of Zen Buddhist teachers with whom I’ve had have no contact and almost certainly never will. Neither do I have urgent opinions about the judgements and remedies thereunto being considered by the (American) Zen establishment. I wasn’t there and don’t intend to be…you know. And as for Dharma transmission – don’t know about that either. I do have things to say about other stuff, though and appreciate being able to say it here. So thanks.

  44. HarryB
    HarryB March 31, 2013 at 5:53 pm | |

    I find this little routine to be very effective:




  45. AnneMH
    AnneMH March 31, 2013 at 7:39 pm | |

    That is all really helpful, and to know that I can stop the little mental glitch where I imagine a toe falling off. Talk about distraction! Okay it amuses me and sometimes keeps me awake when I get to the 3rd or 4th session of the day in a retreat, and I imagine that it is like the meditation on the grossness of the human body, and then I wander mentally back.

    I am fine for my regular sitting, 15 in the am and 30-40 in the evening. Just many sessions throughout a day get to me or anything past an hour. I am able to to half lotus which is quite comfortable but now I switch which leg is on top and am playing around with that. I have never had someone at a retreat bother me, it is my own issue of feeling like I am settled into meditation best in this posture. However looking at it as a back issue more is helpful, I have (knock on wood) never had an issue with my kness from meditation or running! I am really happy about that, but sometimes the back has given me an issue.

  46. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote March 31, 2013 at 9:16 pm | |

    Helps me to realize that what I feel in my legs informs the activity and alignment of my lower back; the freedom of movement of the mind incorporates the ability to feel as feeling takes place to allow the movement of breath to relax and stretch the body.

    I’m going to count backwards from 3 to 1, you are getting very seeply, I yam goin’ to hypnose you…

    The state of mind is like falling asleep or waking up, not something I can do; that’s what sits the lotus, and I write to understand that a state of mind can sit.

  47. The Grand Canyon
    The Grand Canyon April 1, 2013 at 3:47 am | |

    No, no, no.
    If you don’t sit full lotus, you’re doing it WRONG!
    ONLY sitting in FULL LOTUS can result in FULL ENLIGHTENMENT!!
    Because…FULL LOTUS IS MAGIC!!!

  48. minkfoot
    minkfoot April 1, 2013 at 5:33 am | |


    You got that right. That’s why the Buddhas are all sittin in it. But the other postures are magic enough.

    Back pain never goes away for me. Maybe it would if I sat ten hours a day all the time. But I just assume I’ll develop pains the first couple of days, and mostly forget about them the rest of the retreat.

    The last retreat, in December, I brought my own zafu. The quickness with which the back pains lessened amazed me.

    The Bodhisattvas are supposed to represent the energy or activity of various qualities one hopes to develop and employ. Not to hard to understand Compassion or Wisdom (Avalokiteshvara and Manjushri), but Samantabhadra was always a bit of a mystery to me. He represents Vow, or Practice, or the Great Deed, or something. Then, a couple of years ago, yet again negotiating with myself over back and leg pain on a ten-day, I once again got how pointless that was, since I knew I was going to sit the whole retreat, anyway. A wonderful clear “energy” arose, a power or state or something, along with the thought “Is this the energy of Samantabhadra?”

    Of course, the negotiating returned. On my last retreat, it seemed that I could maintain that state for about two days, then two days of “bad” sitting, then find it again, then lose it. But having it about half the time, I reflected afterwards, was pretty damned good.

    A priest in Alaska, Ven. Koun Franz, wrote a pretty good essay that seems related to this. He talks about “Authentic Practice” at
    The first part especially relates to the Samantabhadra thing, though he doesn’t name it.

    I’ve come to be somewhat grateful for the pains I deal with, since it was through them I know what Franz is talking about. Likely it can happen without pain, but it seems to me that all these practices that seem so severe in Asian monasticism, that are retained in some degree in the retreat regimens, are meant to confront you with stuff to deal with and accept and, hopefully, transcend, rather than just condition you to greater endurance.

    And the ultimate joke is, as Simon Child puts it, “When you win the prize, no one’s there to receive it.”

  49. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote April 1, 2013 at 7:47 am | |

    “But too often, when we try to bring zazen into the rest of the day, we imagine that what were bringing is a mindset, a kind of lens on the world. But its simpler than that: Its the total activity of this moment.”

    Good luck, good luck.

    “Vowing to save all beings is like thisif we hold up that vow to our own story of what we think we can and cannot do, we wont even start (that, or well drown in delusions of grandeur). But if we just do it, whatever it iswith all the flailing, human energy we can bring to that workthen that offering is complete. Nothing is lacking.”

    Where’s the edge, I think I’m already falling.

  50. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote April 1, 2013 at 7:54 am | |

    I’m not a Zen teacher, and I realize it’s easy to take shots at those who are and sometimes hard to come to my own senses about things. Maybe I should sit more zazen, more sesshins. Why do I think that’s not what saving all sentient beings is about, right now?

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